More than 55 people have been infected by the Zika virus in Rajasthan in the last fortnight, posing a new public health challenge for the country. From four cases reported last year, three in Gujarat and one in Tamil Nadu, the more than tenfold rise in numbers should be a cause of serious concern. Now, Zika has been added to the basket of vector-borne diseases that the nation continues to battle.
The Zika virus is mainly transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito which is also the host for dengue and chikungunya viruses. Even as India has gained an upper hand in its efforts to control malaria in recent years, dengue and chikungunya outbreaks are prevalent across the country. No state or region is immune to the spread of this species of mosquito and thus the emergence of Zika is a clear threat.
Besides mosquito bites, the virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact, infected needles, blood transfusion and also passed on from the mother to the foetus. The Zika virus causes fever, conjunctivitis, muscular and joint pains accompanied by rashes in general. The WHO has also associated it with serious long-term effects like Guillain-Barre Syndrome that causes paralysis. More of a concern is the threat to pregnant women and those in reproductive ages as the virus is known to cause microcephaly, a congenital brain developmental defect.
The Union health ministry has launched emergency measures to contain the outbreak, which so far has been confined to one pocket of Jaipur city. Officials have to be particularly vigilant to not let the disease spread its tentacles to other parts. Though non-fatal, the Zika virus can have far-reaching consequences on the future generations. The public health system and strategies in the country should now be reoriented with a focus on intense surveillance and intervention to eliminate Aedes aegypti vectors as well as rigorous exercises to educate the general public on the risks associated with the disease.